Monday, December 17, 2007

Throw an instant dinner party for 9

Step 1. Host a party for 30 the night before.
Step 2. Take leftovers to neighbor's house and fill out with salad, bread, side, and a dessert.

Sounds easy, right? Tagert had his annual holiday party and, as is usually the case, invited 30 and cooked for 45. Tagert usually serves a turkey breast and a pork loin that guests can carve themselves for sandwiches and he always cooks extra. He also had leftover cheese and crackers (who doesn't have leftover cheese and crackers from a party? They hang around for weeks!), a tapenade, a killer spinach artichoke dip, and a few other nibbly odds and ends. So he loaded all that up and took it over to Sharon's. Sharon prepared a caesar salad and bread, I brought a sweet potato gratin I'd been wanting to try out, and Karin brought a great pineapple angel food cake. We served 9 with minimal fuss, thanks of course to all the fuss Tagert put into preparing most of the food for his party.

Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin
Bon App├ętit | November 2005

The most difficult part of this dish is peeling the pounds and pounds of potatoes, then running them through a slicer or mandoline. Once you get past that it's actually a really easy recipe to make and the results are incredible.

I'm not going to copy the recipe because I really just added a few things, so follow it as linked above. I did make just a few modifications: 4 cloves of garlic instead of the 1 in the recipe, as was suggested by users; I didn't have thyme, so I used a bit of rosemary instead; and I added about 2 cups shaved gruyere into the warm cream that you pour on the gratin before its final round in the oven. It turned out really well - Karin's son AJ had seconds, and he doesn't even like sweet potatoes.

Speaking of Karin...she is known for her baking skills, and she brought another great dish to top off the meal. Her Pineapple Angel Food Cake was really simple yet amazing.

Pineapple Angel Food Cake

1 box Angel Food Cake mix
1 large can pineapple chunks, in juice (not syrup)
1 tsp vanilla

Add ingredients and stir to blend. Pour into prepared angel food cake pan and bake as instructed on mix. Serve with a dollop of whip cream (fresh is best, drop in some vanilla bean to really take it over the edge).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Vanilla Bean Caramels with Fleur de Sel

My mom has a killer recipe for Vanilla Caramels. They're really easy to make, and your friends will be so impressed. I took her traditional recipe and punched it up a bit by steeping a vanilla bean in the cream (so the caramels would have those gorgeous little brown flecks in vanilla bean ice cream) and by replacing the standard iodized salt with Fleur de sel. Oh, and I swapped out vanilla extract for a jigger of rum or bourbon - either one (but not both!) add a really mellow richness to the candy. If you want to make the traditional version, skip steeping the cream (and the vanilla bean entirely, making this a MUCH cheaper recipe), and substitute with the ingredients indicated in parenthesis below.

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup white syrup
1/4 cup butter, cubed
1/4 tsp Fleur de sel (or 1/2 tsp standard iodized salt)
1 cup cream
1/2 of a long vanilla bean, split (or omit)
1 jigger of bourbon or rum (or 1 tsp of vanilla extract)
whole cashews, optional

In a small pan, bring cream just to simmer. Split the vanilla bean along its side and place in the cream. Cover and steep off heat for 20 minutes. Uncover and skim off any film that has formed on the cream. Remove the vanilla bean from the cream, and using a knife scrape the centers of each bean back into the cream, discarding the bean when done. Stir to spread the vanilla throughout the cream. Omit this entire step if making the traditional recipe.

Pour sugar, syrup, butter, Fleur de sel and cream into a medium saucepan. Cook, using a candy thermometer, to 248 degrees (firm ball stage), occasionally scraping down the sides of the pan with a wooden spoon - but resist the temptation to stir! Remove from heat and let cool slightly, 2-3 minutes. Slowly stir in bourbon/rum/vanilla. Pour into a buttered sheet pan for thin caramels or a 9x13 pan for thick caramels. Cool until starting to firm, 1-2 hrs. Cut into squares and wrap in waxed paper or candy wrappers. For a fun option, after cutting press a whole cashew into the caramel square and roll it into a delicious, cashew-centered ball of chewy goodness.

Chris Freeland
cfreeland27 (at)

Urban Tailgate

So we went to the Nemanicks' last Saturday to watch the Mizzou football game. It was a disappointing loss, but at least the food was good!

Rik brined 2 pork tenderloins, then roasted one with ginger, the other with rosemary. Both were divine.

Sharon brought a kick ass chili cheese dip - what we all like to call 'crack dip' because it keeps you coming back for more....again....and again.

Tagert made some really amazing Mediterranean sausage meatballs with feta and olives.

I made Ina's Apple and Pear Crisp, minus the pears. Tagert tried this one out at our neighborhood Thanksgiving and the pears were, well, problematic. Chris Cozzoni doesn't like pears anyway, so I left them out. I think it was just as good, although I wouldn't recommend using Granny Smith apples in this. Go for something a bit softer, like a Gala, as the citrus zest and juice + tart apples can be a bit overwhelming. This recipe has an amazing crumble, which I'm sure to use on other dishes.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Somewhere between the farmhouse & the townhouse...

"Countrypolitan Cooking" is an approach to cooking and entertaining that my friend Tagert and I live by.

That's Tagert making croutons he served along with an amazing chicken one Friday night.

Chris Freeland

That's me, Chris Freeland, on the right, carving a gourd at Sharon's Annual Pumpkin Carving Party. That's my partner, who is also named Chris, on the left.

We both grew up in the country on and around farms (I'm from Illinois and Tagert's from Arkansas) and learned how to cook traditional farmhouse foods from our moms and grams (and aunts, cousins, and yes, even dads). Growing up at my house we'd have an extended family dinner nearly every Sunday with at least 10 people and two tables' worth of homestyle cooking like homemade yeast rolls, ham or turkey, my grandma's mac & cheese (a Velveeta-infused delight, and a forthcoming recipe), noodles, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn as well as desserts like chocolate cream pie (see how I updated that one), rhubarb pie, apple, get the picture. It was a sneeze guard away from a Bob Evans buffet, but in a really good Home-Sweet-Home-comfort-food kind of way.

Well, like many country boys, we both moved to the big city. And in this case we both landed in (don't laugh) St. Louis. Don't laugh, seriously - St. Louis is a REALLLY big place compared to where we both grew up (1 hr. from the nearest mall, 2 hrs. from the nearest airport).

Also, St. Louis is a quietly cosmopolitan town, which does surprise many visitors from far-off the Isle of Manhattan. It's a very urban city with beautiful Victorian architecture and a mix of neighbors from diverse cultures and social backgrounds all mashed together. It's fun, and one of the best parts of that cultural diversity are the many authentic ethnic restaurants we have - in one stretch of road alone there's Japanese, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Persian, Ethiopian, Afghani - heck, there's even a 24-hour diner and a few martini bars. But the really best part is that the whole city is like that - there are amazing restaurants everywhere. And believe me, we partake of this bounty whenever possible.

As Tagert and I have started having dinner parties and backyard BBQs with our groups of (now almost totally intermingled) friends, we naturally pulled from cooking techniques and recipes from our country backgrounds, but updated them with spices and flavors and approaches to food preparation we've experienced here in the city. We call this "Countrypolitan Cooking" and we hope you'll enjoy the recipes and menus we plan to share here.